27 June 2008

Aubrey de Grey’s preposterous campaign to cure aging

Filed under: Methuselah, UKTA — David Wood @ 6:39 am

At first sight, Aubrey de Grey is clearly preposterous. Not only does he look like a relic of the middle ages, with his huge long beard, but his ideas on potentially “curing aging” within the present generation apparently run counter to many well-established principles of science, society, philosophy, and even religion. So it’s no surprise that his ideas arouse some fervent opposition. See for example a selection of the online comments to the article about him, “The Fight to End Aging Gains Legitimacy, Funding“, in today’s Wired:

Guess what, jackasses… we’re supposed to die! Look up the 2nd law of thermodynamics, you might learn something. We’ve even evolved molecular mechanisms to make sure our cells can’t reproduce beyond a certain point… check out “Hayflick limit” on Wikipedia. The stark biological reality is that we are here to pass along our genes to our progeny and the DIE. What the hell, wasn’t this settled back in the 1800s? Why are we debating this stupidity?


Aging and death is an evolutionary response to cancer in mammals. You’ll have to resolve the cancer issue (and remember kids – cancer is actually a whole lot of different but related diseases) before you can resolve the aging and death issue.

However, first appearances can be deceptive. I had my own first serious discussions with Aubrey at the “Tomorrow’s People” conference in Oxford in March 2006. Not only did I pose my own questions, I listened and observed with increasing admiration as Aubrey addressed issues posed by other audience members, and during many coffee breaks as the conference progressed. Later that year in August, at Transvision 2006 in Helsinki (by the way, as well as being home to the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, Finland hosts a disproportionate number of self-described transhumanists; perhaps both reflect an unusually pragmatic yet rational approach to life), I had the chance to continue these discussions and observations. I saw that Aubrey has good, plausible answers to his critics. You can find many of these answers on his extensive website.

Since that time, I’ve been keen to take the opportunity to watch Aubrey speak whenever it arises. Unfortunately, I’ll miss the conference that’s happening at UCLA this weekend: “AGING: The Disease – The Cure – The Implications” – which has a session this afternoon (4pm West Coast time) that’s open to the general public. However, I’m eagerly looking forward to some good debate at the July 12 meeting of the UKTA, at Birkbeck College in London, where Aubrey will be one of the speakers on the topic, “Living longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?”. (If you’re interested to attend that, and you Facebook, you can indicate your interest and RSVP here.)

As I’ve come to see it, addressing aging by the smart and imaginative uses of technology fits well with the whole programme of medicine (which constantly intervenes to prevent nature taking its “natural toll” on the human body). It also has some surprising potential cost-saving benefits, as aging-related diseases are responsible for a very significant part of national health expenditure. But that’s only the start of the argument. To help explore many of the technical byways of this argument, I strongly recommend Aubrey’s 2007 book, “Ending Aging: The rejuvenation breakthroughs that could reverse human aging in our lifetime“.

In terms of disruptive technology trends (some of which I study in my day job), this is about as big as it gets.

I’ll end by quoting from today’s Wired article:

“In perhaps seven or eight years, we’ll be able to take mice already in middle age and treble their lifespan just by giving them a whole bunch of therapies that rejuvenate them,” de Grey said. “Gerontologists all over, even my most strident critics, will say yes, Aubrey de Grey is right.”

Even as he imagines completing Gandhi’s fourth step, de Grey always keeps his eye on the ultimate prize — the day when the aging-as-disease meme reaches the tipping point necessary to funnel really big money into the field.

“The following day, Oprah Winfrey will be saying, aging is a disease and let’s fix it right now,” de Grey said.

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